Smart people saying smart things

Smart people saying smart things April 28, 2012

Rick Perlstein: “Behind the Right’s Phony War on the Nonexistent Religion of Secularism

One of the most robust and effective conspiracy theories on the right, the notion that “secularism” – or, just as often, “Secular Humanism” – is a religion is meant to be taken entirely literally: right wingers genuinely believe it refers to an actually existing religious practice. How do conservatives know? Because, they say, the Supreme Court said so. It was, as religious historian and Lutheran minister Martin E. Marty has written, “an instance where one can date precisely the birth of a religion: June 19, 1961.” That was the day the Court ruled in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins striking down the Maryland Constitution’s requirement of “a declaration of belief in the existence of God” to hold “any office of profit or trust in this state” — specifically, in atheist Roy Torcaso’s case, the office of notary public. In his decision, Justice Hugo Black, writing for a unanimous court, further asserted that states and the federal government could not favor religions “based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs” – and, in a fateful, ill-considered, and entirely offhand footnote explained: “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would be generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

From here, things get wacky. As unearthed by the outstanding scholar Carol Mason in her masterpiece Reading Appalachia from Left to Right, in 1974 a Jesuit priest and Fordham University law professor named Edward Berbasse argued that “since humanism is now considered by the court to be a religion , it must be prevented from being established by the government.” An activist asked him if that meant they could win their fight to ban the satanic textbooks being forced down their children’s throats in Kanawha County, West Virginia by taking the matter to the Supreme Court. “I think you may have the material if you can get a crackerjack lawyer,” Father Berbasse responded. A Supreme Court case was never actually attempted – not least because, as Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have pointed out, “While historically there has been an organized humanist movement in the United States since at least the 1800s, the idea of a large-scale quasireligion called secular humanism is a conspiracist myth.” In Kanawha County, the textbook fight was fought out with dynamite instead. Nationwide, however, the conspiracist myth took on a life of its own – even unto the halls of Congress.

For Secular Humanism was not just an imaginary religion. It was, as the subtitle to a 1984 book still revered by religious conservatives, put it, The Most Dangerous Religion in America. How so? Because it held that man, not God, determines human affairs. From that, as Martin Marty explained, the ascendant religious right developed the claim that “when a textbook does not mention the God of the Bible … it necessarily leads to a void which it must fill with the religion of Secular Humanism.” (It’s a religion. Thus the capital letters.) And that any textbook which does not mention the guiding hand of God is rock-solid proof that the “secular humanist” conspiracists had written it; the absence was the presence.

Jamelle Bouie: “The Only Reasonable Response Is Alarm

The 2012 election isn’t a debate between two variations on welfare state capitalism—it’s a choice between two visions of American society. Will the United States be a place of solidarity between people? Will we build a society where everyone has the tools to succeed? Will we care for the least advantaged in the best way that we can? Or will we indulge the hyper-individualistic id of American life, and create a place where opportunity is reserved for those who already have it, and everyone else is left to defend themselves against the unbridled market?

Believe me when I say that I’m not exaggerating for the sake of the election. The Ryan/Romney/Republican is a complete departure from the post-war political consensus in a way that wasn’t true of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, or even McCain/Palin. Ryan wants to return to a world of tremendous social and economic injustice, and the GOP has signed on wholeheartedly. It’s alarming, and those of us who fall within the liberal tradition, that’s a necessary and reasonable response.

Steve Fraser & Joshua B. Freeman: “Locking Down an American Workforce

Sweatshop labor is back with a vengeance. It can be found across broad stretches of the American economy and around the world. Penitentiaries have become a niche market for such work. The privatization of prisons in recent years has meant the creation of a small army of workers too coerced and right-less to complain.

Prisoners, whose ranks increasingly consist of those for whom the legitimate economy has found no use, now make up a virtual brigade within the reserve army of the unemployed whose ranks have ballooned along with the U.S. incarceration rate. The Corrections Corporation of America and G4S (formerly Wackenhut), two prison privatizers, sell inmate labor at subminimum wages to Fortune 500 corporations like Chevron, Bank of America, AT&T, and IBM.

These companies can, in most states, lease factories in prisons or prisoners to work on the outside. All told, nearly a million prisoners are now making office furniture, working in call centers, fabricating body armor, taking hotel reservations, working in slaughterhouses, or manufacturing textiles, shoes, and clothing, while getting paid somewhere between 93 cents and $4.73 per day.

Rarely can you find workers so pliable, easy to control, stripped of political rights, and subject to martial discipline at the first sign of recalcitrance — unless, that is, you traveled back to the 19th century when convict labor was commonplace nationwide.


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  • Lori

    Prison privatization is just horrible in every way that matters to decent people (or ought to). I cut people some slack for having started down this road because the sales pitch was excellent, but the fact that we allow it to continue in the face of relentless, overwhelming evidence of how awful it is, is a national disgrace. 

  • ChrisH

    The Perlstein article reminded me of a little fact I discovered about a year back when “Secular Humanism” was first brought up.  the website is, while not strictly available, is simply being used as a placeholder site and prolly could be acquired for the right price.  And really, with secular humanism’s meaning so fluid and evolving, can you put a price on having a website that purports to definitively say what it is?

    Of course, the urge to use the site purely for trolling would be far too great.  Declaring myself head of the Secular Humanims Church with some elaborate title…articles on the new curse words we wish to invent and place into children’s minds, perhaps the prayer one should give to spotted owls.

    After blowing through the first 5 seasons of Supernatural, rather perverse ideas come to mind.

  • Jurgan

    This isn’t a direct response to anything here, but I haven’t seen it mentioned yet, and it seems like the sort of thing Fred would like.  This is Romans 12:21 in action.  The video brought tears to my eyes- this is how you fight hatred, people.

  • Jurgan

    Oops, it looks like the video was pulled.  Here’s a shorter version of the same event: 

  • I thought it had largely stalled out because state governments were finding the claims of cost-effectiveness of privatization were overexaggerated, while there was a rise in problems among the prison populations.

  • friendly reader

    Secular Humanism is indeed a philosophical movement that in some ways wants to replace supernatural religion. It is not, however, defined as “the absence of preference for a particular religion or sect.” There’s more to the philosophy than that. And while there are Secular Humanist organizations, my understanding is they mostly just want the right to exist as an alternative to religion and not be discriminated against because they aren’t religious.

    But as for the lower-case version…

    Yes, our public society is secular. Yes, our public society is humanist. That’s not some evil conspiracy to destroy religion or introduce Secular Humanism as a state-mandated belief, it’s pragmatism. The other route – sectarian, theocratic – leads to misery and woe on a public scale. You can join a sect and engage in a God-governed lifestyle, and even use those beliefs to influence some of your policy positions, but you cannot limit the right of people to join a different sect (or none at all), follow a different lifestyle, or have different beliefs influence their policy.

    That way lies the Thirty Years’ War.

  • friendly reader

    Also, thought during my shower –

    If lack of explicit mention of God is a sign that something is an evil, Satan-inspired text of pure Secular Humanism, then why haven’t they kicked Esther and Song of Songs out of the Bible yet?

  • Salix

    Privatization of prisons is a different issue than prison labor. As far as I know, BoA (for example) isn’t actually *running* prisons; they just hire out prisoners for slave labor. I guess the stereotype is making license plates or doing the laundry for the local nursing homes and hospitals. 

  • Whoops, my bad, you’re right. That said ISTR privatized prisons often trumpet the “and we make prisoners work for a living, too” angle, which tends to rarely work out in practice.

    I’ve heard stories of prisoners committing identity theft, as well.

  • Dan Audy

    The thing I find most concerning about prison labour (and I find the entire concept deeply concerning) is that the racial breakdown of the prison population in the US is extremely distorted with a huge number of black men as a result of the (horribly misguided and misgoverned) War on Drugs.  Doesn’t this just create a slave labour population of blacks in prisons rather than plantations? 

    Beyond that, I find the attempt to bypass employment and wage laws to be truly despicable, particularly because as a large part of the products they put together are being sold as ‘Made in America’ in a manner to suggest that they aren’t party to the abuses of outsourcing labour to third world nations.  Preying on peoples patriotism to abuse slave labour for profit is truly beyond the pale.

  • bad Jim

    These familiar lines are entirely secular and perfectly humanist:

    We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

    What could be more secular or humanist than government of the people, by the people and for the people?

  • friendly reader

    Oh, but they’re endowed with rights “by their Creator,” which is totally explicitly the triune God of Christianity and means the Bible should be the source of all our law, as interpreted through a patriarchal Evanglicalism!

    Silly you, it’s so obvious!

  • P J Evans

     Thereby proving they failed history and government – in grade school. Because they can’t tell the Constitution from the Declaration of Independence.

  • Original Lee

    Oh, this Secular Humanism piece actually is helping me understand another issue I’ve been having problems with.  Thanks, Fred!  I was wondering why the Radiant Purity movement has been setting my teeth on edge, and now I understand that a least part of it is because dating is a Secular Humanist way of finding a spouse!  (Well, actually, according to the Radiant Purity movement, dating is just a way of enjoying the benefits of marriage without being committed to marriage.)  It’s also a fetishization of first love.  Some of the stuff I’m reading is intended to instruct young women on Radiant Purity, and it feels almost pedophilic in the way it talks about the purity of the love a girl has for the man she marries.

    So, I know it’s sort of OT, but any helpful comments on this Radiant Purity thing would be most welcome.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

     But they want theocracy and they want war.  Their whole mythos sees Satan and us by extension as a real enemy.  They are in a literal war for the soul of the nation and taking some of us out is a Christian duty.


    Because they can’t tell the Constitution from the Declaration of Independence.

    I wish that was a joke.

  • friendly reader

    I know that there are some who feel that way, but I still think they are small compared to the general population who is fooled by the Secular Humanism argument. Most people just want to live in piece, even members of right-wing religious groups.

    Insanely vocal, with far too much power in our current political system, but still small.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Doesn’t this just create a slave labour population of blacks in prisons rather than plantations? 

    Beyond that, I find the attempt to bypass employment and wage laws to
    be truly despicable, particularly because as a large part of the
    products they put together are being sold as ‘Made in America’ in a
    manner to suggest that they aren’t party to the abuses of outsourcing
    labour to third world nations.

    Yes it does and yes it is and FUCK THEM. Do I have to import all my things fair-trade or from the EU?

  • lowtechcyclist

    1. Jamelle Bouie is absolutely right.

    2. This exploitation of prison labor is outrageous and must stop.  While it may be a distinct issue from prison privatization, it seems to me that the same motivations that would lead people to make a buck by running private prisons would have naturally coughed up this abomination.

    That said, I don’t think the public is ready for a root-and-branch rejection of private prisons, but I can’t see many people thinking this sort of exploitation is OK, so that’s where the battle line should be drawn.  It’s one thing for prisoners to work for governments at various levels (e.g. picking up trash from the roadsides), or even working for charitable enterprises (e.g. helping Habitat for Humanity build homes, or helping food banks sort through donations of canned food), but that should be as far as it goes. 

    If a prisoner does work for a for-profit corporation, or even a noncharitable nonprofit, then the prisoner should be paid the going rate, period.  And most specifically, the prison operator should be barred from making a plugged nickel off the prisoner’s labor.

    3. The easy jiujitsu on the ‘secular humanism’ argument is that since it takes the position that *everything* in the governmental sphere that doesn’t mention God is part of the establishment of that extensive religion, that means everything from the war in Afghanistan to your local road improvements bill is secular humanism.  If anyone over 65 is making this argument, tell them they’d better stop collecting their Social Security checks and get off Medicare – they’re secular humanism in action!

    Pretty silly, really.

  • christopher_young

     I suppose you could in theory rearrange the United States on the basis of Cuius regio, eius religio, but then you get to fight over what counts as a regio: state; county; school district? And that’s before you start worrying about who eius refers to in that context.

    You’re right. That way lies the Thirty Years War.

  • Jeff Weskamp

    The issue of “Cuius regio, eius religio” is similar to the issue raised by the Catholic bishops concerning “Catholic businesses” being “forced” to provide contraceptive coverage in their employees’ insurance plans.  What qualifies a business as “Catholic?”  Does having a Catholic CEO make the business Catholic?  Or do the majority of the company’s shareholders have to be Catholic?

    Needless to say, the bishops never answered this question.

  • P J Evans

     I wish it was, also.

  • Tricksterson

    Except the  Constitution was specifically worded to avoid any mention of a Creator, unlike the Declaration which was pretty much the work of one man albeit a brilliant one.  Furthere more since the Declaration was a statement of intent, rather than a framework of government it cold afford to indulge in rhetorical flourishes.  Yeah, I know you don’t have to be told this but I’m doing it for anyone who takes it seriously rather than sarcasm.

    Also I wonder if those who tout the “endowed by their Creator” line are aware that as a deist Jefferson believed in a substantialy different type of deity than they do.

  • Tricksterson

    Could we at least get a town from 350+ years in the future to pop in and set things right?

  • veejayem

    Satanic textbooks in West Virginia are (of course) being “forced down children’s throats” (ouch). What interesting lives you people live in the States! My school library just has the usual cohort of children’s authors, people like J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman … oh.

  • Lori

    Privatization of prisons is a different issue than prison labor. As far as I know, BoA (for example) isn’t actually *running* prisons; they just hire out prisoners for slave labor. I guess the stereotype is making license plates or doing the laundry for the local nursing homes and hospitals. 

    They are separate issues, but they’re very much related. Expansion of prison labor is one of the things that’s wrong with privatization. Running a prison for profit creates an obvious incentive for the companies have turned their facilities into their own little 3rd world countries. They treat inmates as an exploitable resource and they make money off of every one they send to work for BoA or whoever.

  • P J Evans

     And they put the prisons in places that are desperate for paying jobs for the local adults.

  • AnonymousSam

    Wonderful. Now businesses don’t have to move overseas to find workers to whom they can pay thirty cents an hour. That’s so much more convenient to them, and I’m sure it’ll increase their profit margins. That was the goal, right? Vitally necessary to our economy. *Nods sagely*

    I wonder what it says when the three most ideal places for the average American to be are in the army, in prison, or in a monastery. All of the three will get you food and housing, it’s just a matter of who gets killed to be there: a foreigner, a stranger, or your soul.

    We are so screwed.

  • Tricksterson

    Oh it’s worse than that.  It’s not just Pullman and Rowling that some, admittedly not all, consider stanic but good Christian folks like Lewis, Tolkien and L’Engle.  Lengle for her liberal take on Christianity, Lewis and Tolkien for what they consider pagan elements.